The United Church of Chester

March 28, 2021

Palm Sunday

            It grieves me that we have to begin this Sunday’s service on the same note we closed last Sunday’s service, acknowledging with deep sorrow and even deeper frustration yet another mass shooting, this week in a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado.  Ten people were killed.  Last week it was Georgia, eight people dead.  Two massacres in less than a week.  Last Monday, the day of the Boulder shootings, was the 81st day of 2021.  So far this year there have been 104 mass shootings in those 81 days.  120 people have been killed.  At least 380 have been injured.  It is a grim way to begin the holiest week of the Christian year, but it must not pass unnoted.

            It has been a grim week.  The southeast United States was battered by fatal storms; tornadoes ripped through Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee, leaving at least seven dead in their wake.    Also this week we learned that the conspiracy theorists who denied last year’s election results have turned their denial toward the Covid vaccine.  Apparently their attention has pivoted from “Stop the Steal” to a “Stop the Vaccine” crusade.  Yup - you heard that right.  The disinformation machine has turned from politics to medicine, except that it is really all still politics; for all the good work done by so many good people to get shots into arms, there remains an irrational and somewhat quixotic pushback against it.  Then, three days ago, the Georgia legislature voted to restrict access to voting, targeting voting rights among communities of color in particular; other states are watching carefully and likely to follow suit.  And a cargo ship as long as the Empire State building is tall is stuck in the middle of the Suez Canal, bringing shipping through that pivotal waterway to a complete halt and rerouting at least some sea cargo traffic around the southernmost tip of Africa.  When I wrote to Karli on Wednesday with this week’s sermon topic, there was a voice in the back of my head warning me that the week was still young, and I hoped and prayed my list of difficult news would grow no longer, but then I opened the news yesterday morning to read of two people shot dead and eight injured in Virginia Beach on Friday night.

            What a grim way to enter Holy Week.  What a grim way to enter Jerusalem.

            “I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances,” reads the 31st psalm.  Talitha Arnold wrote about that psalm in Wednesday’s online UCC devotional, describing a trip she had taken to northern Iraq to interview women in the refugee camps of Kurdistan.  The women had escaped from ISIS after the terrorist organization decimated their homeland in 2014.  They had both witnessed and experienced unspeakable horrors.  Talitha collected their stories as a way of making their voices heard.  They were hard stories to hear, and harder still to tell.  But they also deserve to be both spoken and heard precisely because of their horror.  And by calling on the 31st psalm, Talitha understood that in times of scorn and horror and dread, God is still present.  One Yazidi woman she interviewed told her that even as she was being beaten by an ISIS soldier, she had a vision of God’s hands holding her soul in a tender embrace.  “God kept me safe,” she said, even as she was being broken.

            So.  Happy Palm Sunday everybody!  I recognize that retelling these stories may seem like an uncomfortable way to greet Holy Week, but this is the reason I chose them, because Palm Sunday wears more than one hat.  When we think about the day of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, we tend to focus on the crowds crying out “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”  We picture a parade, or as our prayer this morning called it, a “Passion Parade,” and we imagine people waving their palm fronds like children holding balloons and flags on Memorial Day and the fourth of July, adults craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the celebrity Jesus.  At first blush, it is a scene of joy and laughter, of majesty and triumph.  But even in the earliest days of that week, Jesus knew what the disciples and the crowd lining the streets did not:  that this was the beginning of the end.  Jesus knew that the very same people who cheered him on Sunday would abandon him on Thursday and deny him on Friday.  He knew that the very same voices shouting “Hosanna!” would later be crying out, “Give us Barabbas!” and “Crucify him!”  He knew that Peter himself would surrender to the big lie, “I do not know the man.  I have never seen him before.”

            John’s gospel describes in vivid terms both the triumph and the tragedy, both the palms and the passion of that first Palm Sunday.  After the procession was over, when the confetti was cleaned up and the streamers swept away, a handful of visiting Greeks wanted to learn more about this Jewish prophet.  So they approached Philip and asked if they could see Jesus. Both Philip and Andrew brought them to him, and Jesus began to explain what they had witnessed by way of a parable:  “Truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  Death and burial awaited him as the week began.  And all of this, along with the pain and bitterness it brings, has its seeds in that first Palm Sunday.  You and I seldom think of the triumphal entry as the harbinger of suffering and death – the harbinger of the Passion – but Jesus knew where the momentary adulation of the crowd would lead, and he faced it squarely.  “I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances,” as the psalmist wrote.

            There are times when you and I find ourselves living in some of these grim spaces.  The triumphal entry wasn’t Jesus’ happy dance, he knew the darkness that lay ahead.  But like that Iraqi woman, he also knew that God’s hands were cradling his spirit.  It was what sustained him as the week progressed, and the days grew darker and more menacing.  “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  The temptation is often strong on the part of the church to try to rush straight through Holy Week and get to the glory of Easter.  And it is an understandable temptation.  Who wants to live through a night of betrayal?  Who wants to be greeted by the dawn of desertion?  Who wants to watch all your best friends abandon you in your time of greatest need?  Let’s get to the good stuff, shall we?  The daffodils and the songbirds and the bright warm sun in the Easter sky!  Well yes, we will arrive there eventually.  But first we have to walk through difficult days with Jesus, through the valley of the shadow of death.  We need to pause at the table on Thursday.  We need to confront the cross on Friday.  We need to wait that long Saturday as the buried seed begins to prepare its fruit.  We need to do all of this for Jesus, because Jesus did all of this for us.

            This is an imperfect analogy, but think about going through Holy Week, with its disappointments, its letdowns, its pain and its passion, like getting your second Covid shot.  Some folks experience a headache, fever, chills, fatigue and a handful of other symptoms.  Earlier this week someone told me they felt like they had been hit by a bus the night of the second shot.  But you know it isn’t going to last forever, and nearly all of us are willing to endure the discomfort and the pain, because we know that being fully vaccinated carries with it the hope for not just a new day, but a restoration of living to the fullest.  In a similar way, we know that the heartache of Holy Week is a necessary experience on the way to something even more restorative, but we cannot rush either one.  No second dose until three to four weeks after the first, and even then it’s another two weeks until we’re fully protected.  No resurrection until the six days of this week, no Easter until seven weeks after Lent’s beginning, no bright new morning until after the long dark night is done.

            I had to laugh when I opened the Boston Globe this morning.  Columnist Yvonne Abraham literally stole my sermon topic today.  “It has been a grim week,” she writes, and then goes on to review, not just this past week, but the past month and the past year.  She too writes about Covid, about the assault on the Capitol, about restricting black votes.  And she does it as a way of ushering her readers to a brighter day:  to spring, to Passover, to Easter and to the liberation a fully vaccinated nation and world promises to bring.  It’s not often I get plagiarized by a major metropolitan newspaper; it’s almost like she was looking over my shoulder as I wrote this week.  But I’m not ready to go where she did yet; because where Abraham ended on a hopeful note, I think we still need to sit for a bit in this grey and troublesome week.  In the gospel story, it is the only route to redemption and rebirth.  We’ll get there, but not now, not yet.

            It has been a hard week.  Talitha Arnold wrote about some hard words.  It was a hard day for Jesus.  What are some of the hard things we are holding?  What are we struggling with on this final lap toward the resurrection?  I know some of us have not seen beloved family members for more than a year.  Some of us are navigating troubled relationships.  Maybe we feel like the Ever Given stuck in the mud of the Suez.  Some of us are negotiating difficult transitions.  Or maybe it’s just that a year of feeling locked down and hemmed in has finally taken its toll.  If you’re feeling any of this, or even most of this, it’s OK.  We have a lot of company.  We are here for each other.  And God is here for us.  Remember, we aren’t the first ones to make this journey and we won’t be the last.  In this Holy Week, it is a journey Jesus walked for us, in order that we can walk the same journey with one another.

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